In this classic 1897 essay by Ahad Ha’am—pen name of Asher Ginsberg—the early Zionist thinker provides an analysis of the material and moral conditions of Eastern and Western Jews and calls for a renaissance of the Jewish spirit and Jewish culture. The strongest reason for Zionism is not economic but moral. Ahad Ha’am stresses the importance of the development of a modern Jewish identity that authentically derives from Jewish culture and ideas—not one simply formed by external gentile force. This requires political freedom and the establishment of a Jewish cultural center.
For more on this classic essay, check out the Tikvah Podcast on Great Jewish Essays and Ideas with Judaic Studies and History professor Allan Arkush.
Now Judaism . . . seeks to return to its historic center, in order to live there a life of natural development, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to develop and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living according to its own spirit. For this purpose Judaism needs at present but little. It needs not an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development: a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of culture, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature. This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the center of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then from this center the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity; and when our national culture in Palestine has attained that level, we may be confident that it will produce men in the country who will be able, on a favorable opportunity, to establish a State which will be a Jewish State, and not merely a State of Jews.